1. No ideas but in nouns
“I don’t like adjectives, I guess,” says Pete Dexter, his gee-whiz South Dakota twang softened a little, because this isn’t a story about a drunk, a dog, a bar fight or splashing the shoes of the custodian of all the company cars at the Daily News. Pete Dexter is talking about writing—one of the very few things, aside from his wife and his 15-month-old daughter, Casey, that Dexter takes seriously.
“I guess you could definitely say I don’t like adjectives. I don’t like adverbs. I don’t even like verbs very much. I like nouns,” he smiles, lifting his mustache, and takes a sip of his beer. “I like the names of things.” The South Dakota twang comes back now, in all its yahoo glory. “Were you thinking of having a drink?”
I was thinking I had a drink. Had several, in fact. It is only 9 p.m. The night stretches ahead of us like a sea of drinks, or, like the Admiral Wilson Boulevard, which Dexter, who somehow always gets lost, has turned off of and onto several times in attempt to find the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
“Hell, I hate this,” he says every time he thinks he is lost.
“Oh, fine, I think this is the shortcut I’m always forgetting about,” he says every time he thinks he is not lost.
The Coke bottles rattle on the floor of the car. “Toss those things in the back if you want,” he says. The car is a new one—“Some kind of a Chevy, I don’t know”—given to Dexter by the Daily News, part of his salary as a columnist. It has little air conditioner vents all over the dashboard and the grimy look of a ghetto bus that’s just been cleaned of graffiti. A car where a lot of living has gone on—plus some eating that has left the crumbs and the bottles. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams, inventing, in one sentence, 20th-century American poetry; and Dexter, himself a poet, has a car full of ideas.
“Were you thinking of a drink?” he asks.
Pete Dexter writes three columns a week for the Philadelphia Daily News. At 35, he is easily the best writer on the paper—which means the best writer in the city. Some people—me for one—think he is at least as good as any other columnist on any other paper—from John Leonard to Jimmy Breslin. He is sometimes the very best there is.
Read the Valentine column—all that wild comedy, one of the things Dexter does effortlessly. When you’re done you begin to realize—that column isn’t about Dee-Dee and the davenport, that column is a little picture of Dee-Dee’s mother. She’s never described, she only says four sentences—and she’s real. A plain woman with a pretty daughter is the way I see her—either thin or a little overweight, she might fold her arms when she talks. Or else touch her hair back at the bun. Dee-Dee would have tits as big as her head. Dee-Dee’s father would wear short-sleeve sport shirts, except in the cold weather when he wears an old cardigan sweater. Maybe you see it another way.
What I like about that story—because it is a short story—is that Dexter lets us supply the bodies. He supplies the pure spirit, the resonant conversation. We all know why Dee-Dee’s mother says, “I don’t want him shaken up.” Or we can supply reasons out of our own lives. The story is like a story about angels.
And hawk shadows—I just look at this sentence:
“When she left the limb, her wings would pump the air slowly, and it was the nature of her power that you could see the effect of each of the strokes on her flight.”
It is the nature of the power of that sentence that you can almost see the big bird take off and fly with the big noiseless flaps of its wings driving it across the sky, just like the words drive the sentence along. To me, that’s the best kind of writing there is: deft, elegant and apparently casual. It’s very hard to be that good—and almost impossible to make it look that easy.
2. Joe Markey’s story
It turned out I was thinking of having a drink, and Dexter was thinking the same thing. “I don’t do many things now that I don’t like doing,” he said. “I make sure to keep up with things. I see the movies that come out. Read the books that get talked about. Get drunk with Joe Markey. All stuff I would want to do anyway, but wouldn’t have time—if I had any other kind of a job.”
We met Joe Markey at Dirty Frank’s bar at 13th and Pine. Dirty Frank’s has a new sign now, but otherwise hasn’t changed since it used to be a beatnik bar in the ’50s and a hippie bar in the ’60s, and it is still whatever kind of bar a bar has to be in the ’70s to be more interesting than television and a happy home life. Dart players have their separate competitive party off to one side. Homemade artworks line one wall. The crowd is white and black together, and for 20 years now you can see the same kind of girl in here every night—the little blonde from some suburb somewhere losing her rosy-cheeked good looks slowly but steadily as you watch, like a flower fading in time-lapse photography.
Joe Markey, at the bar, is bearded, thin, looking fit and in his 30s—but he must be 50 or so. He is the famous Joe Markey, Lord of Tasker. Markey is a longtime letter-writer and sometime columnist for the Daily News. He was apparently fired because a new editorial page editor was appalled by his opinions. There is a sense in which Markey’s opinions, as opinions, are appalling to me also. Markey is the voice of those ultra-reactionary, ultra-working-class guys who vote the straight Frank Rizzo-Franny Rafferty-Ronald Reagan ticket, no matter what party those grim warlords happen to be using to get on the ballot.
But it’s a curiosity of American politics that some of the people whose opinions sound the worst are personally the most humane and decent—and vice versa. I don’t know why that is, but Joe Markey is one of those men, a grown-up thin little kid, the kind who used to make everybody laugh in class, who can still make everybody laugh.
“Have a drink,” says Dexter. “Forget the beer. Have a Flaming Arrow.”
“You know that if they cut off your finger or hand or leg or anything, at a Catholic hospital they bury it in consecrated ground?” Markey says.
I tell him I don’t believe it.
“It’s true,” says Dexter. “This is the only guy who ever visited the grave of his finger. Really a great story. A Flaming Arrow,” Dexter explains to the bartender, “is a short shot of Southern Comfort, with a float of green Chartreuse on top, then you light it with a match.”
“I lost the third finger on my right hand,” says Markey, holding it up for inspection. “I was jumping over a hurricane fence where my brother was playing tennis and I caught my ring on the top as I dropped. It just took the finger right off the bone. The doctors call it de-gloving. I call it filleting. The finger lands right in the middle of the tennis court and I’m standing there holding my hand and yelling to my brother to pick it up. He turns around and starts laughing, because he thinks I just threw a fake finger in the middle of the court. That’s when I almost got a nigger killed.”
“Wait a minute,” says Dexter, “we aren’t supposed to say words like that, right?”
“Come on, I just didn’t realize,” says Markey. “I’m standing holding my hand against my chest and yelling, ‘Help, help’ and there’s a friend of mine, a cop, watching the tennis game. He sees the blood and thinks I been stabbed. And there’s … a black guy—is that alright, Pete?—a black guy walking down the street and the cop pulls out his gun and aims right at him. ‘No, no,’ I’m yelling, ‘get my finger.’ And I save that guy’s life, though he never realizes it. How close you come, right? So they get me in the car and take me down Saint Agnes, and my brother brings the finger. The doctors explain to me down there that because it’s filleted like that, there’s no way they can save it—it has to be cut off whole for that. So they’re going to have to cut off the bone—the first two joints of my finger are sticking up like a skeleton bone. They wrap me in gauze and my brother comes in. My brother takes everything seriously you know, and he says, ‘Here’s your finger, Joe.’ I tell him, ‘That’s not my finger. You got somebody else’s finger, and they’re not putting that thing on my hand.’ He says, ‘It was the only finger they got.’ I’m trying to convince him to take it down the Roundhouse and get it fingerprinted and I almost did when the doctor come in and explained everything to him, and a nun got it for the burial. The funny thing is I come out of the anesthesia and there’s the doctor bending over me. ‘I saved your O,’ he says. I’m still groggy and I’m trying to think, saved my O? Then he says, ‘The O on your tattoo.’ I got a tattoo—LOVE on the fingers of my ring hand, HATE on the fingers of my left hand. My tattoo starts backwards, the L on the little finger, and the O is on the finger that was filleted. See, it’s still there.”
The stump of his third finger is just large enough to show the tattooed O—the doctor probably had to work pretty hard.
“Now I got this new transplant, look.”
Markey has somehow unzipped his fly as he was telling the story and now he holds his right hand down in front of his crotch. His cock* is out, protruding past the stump of his finger, and it looks absolutely like the tip has magically grown back. Meanwhile, Dexter has been explaining that you have to throw this drink down while it’s still flaming, and somehow the bartender has managed to spill a little, so when he lights it the flames flash over the glass along the bar, igniting a puddle of this and that as they go. This is quite a sight, so until the bartender smothers everything with a bar-rag, we do not realize what Markey is doing.
[*I know that penis is a more polite word to use. here, but I think by this time most of the children and the squeamish among the readers have left us, and penis is the wrong word. There are times—like when you take it out in the middle of a crowded bar—when a cock is nothing but a cock.]
“Don’t it look real?” he says. “I do this in the bars, and the girls down Wildwood love it.”
I toss down the drink. It tastes like a singed bar-rag and a lot of toothpaste.
“I’m probably not acting like it, Joe,” says Dexter quietly. “But that’s probably the funniest fucking thing I ever saw in my whole life.”
“It’s a shame you didn’t get to drink your arrow flaming,” says Dexter, turning to me. “Because it can’t really hurt you. It just burns the hair on your mustache. Nobody else can smell it, but all night long you get these little whiffs of singed hair. Like being at your own private fatal fire.”
3. The meaning of work: Meet death like an angel
“You have to meet death like an angel. That’s what Castaneda is saying,” says the mother of four, or maybe five, whose husband doesn’t know where she is, and who has read all the mystic teachings of Don Juan. Somehow it seems to me she has got them mixed up with her Catholic grade school religion class.
“I don’t think death is an angel,” I tell her. The club is lined in quilted stuff that looks like leather to me. Dexter says it is no closer to leather than it is to being a cow—and he must be right. This is my first leatherette bar. 2 a.m. There is a chorus of wives along the bar, singing all the words to “I Will Survive” and “Push Push in the Bush,” the two songs that have alternated steadily for an hour or so on the jukebox. The bar is somewhere near Joe Markey’s neighborhood, Grays Ferry, and very comfortable and pleasant, especially for an after-hours club. Two guys in their 20s sit on either side of an ornate screen that closes in the miniature cocktail section pretending they are priest and confessor. The confession is interminable, scabrous and hilarious.
Tommy the midget, who wears a football jersey with “½” printed as the number on the back, forces his way into conversations and into life—surviving a lot of brutal fun exactly the way Miss Mowcher, the midget in David Copperfield does. A tough little guy. He likes to touch his tongue to the bottom of his chin, and leer.
Dexter has wandered off along the bar. The wives keep trying to teach everybody to do The Dog. I have a sudden and very clear idea that his is not going to be an easy article to write. Earlier in the week, a friend of Dexter’s was killed walking out of a bar. A senseless late-night beating that left him lying on the ground, the back of his head smashed in. Dexter has written a column about it—about death, about bars and drinking, about the friends of his friend, who everybody called Pally.
“Hell, I hate this,” he says, stalking around the streets of Grays Ferry. “I hate losing the goddam car. I hate losing the goddam car every time I come out of a club at 4 in the goddam morning.”
Good writing comes out of death, sometimes. And an odd kind of joking gets mixed up with this long night. Dexter turns to me at one point and says: “I hope this is going to be one of those warm, wonderful personality pieces. Where you show how I get along good with the Common People.”
He smiles when he says it, but I think he’s very probably joking at me, as much as with me. So I tell the mother of five, or maybe six, that I don’t think death is an angel.
“Your sins are forgiven, my son,” says the fake priest, who is wearing his jacket backwards for effect. “For penance, drink 100 Bloody Marys and kneel down for a week.”
“Too much, fa’r,” says the penitent. “How about eating ten bloody….”
“You don’t understand,” says the mother of six. “Death isn’t an angel. You have to meet death like you’re an angel. That’s what Castaneda says. And he’s right. What other way is there to do it?”
I keep trying to change the subject to work instead of death because everybody in the bar seems to be looking for a job. And I hate jobs. Somehow it seems to me very clear, at 3 a.m. or so, that Americans are being robbed of work. And all there is left is jobs—jobs that mean you just have to get to the office and stay there a certain amount of time, and watch machines do the work. But human work is something you do that has to be part of the way you live, something you start and stay with until it is finished. The guys who run the stands at 9th Street, the people who work in restaurants, all know what work is. Working flat out, hard as you can, for as long as you can—because you’re producing. And because you love it. Writing is that way, too.
“Okay,” says the mother of six, who is slowly putting on bloom like a bud opening into flower in time lapse photography. “But what about guys who just do nothing but hang around bars and get drunk and write about that. Is that work?”
“It’s work if it’s what you love. You know, that’s like saying to Hemingway, you mean you only go down to Pamplona and get drunk and hang around the bars and write about it? You call that work? It is; it just depends on what you’re lucky enough to love.”
“I don’t know if I agree with you completely,” says the mother. “You sound like you’re confusing work with art, don’t you? Or maybe what you mean is that the problem is separating them in the first place? Then I agree with you. Art and work are only valuable though if they’re what Castaneda calls Mescalito joking—if they help you meet death like an angel.”
I can’t get death out of my mind. Everybody is leaving the bar now and going to Wildwood or else up to Somers Point where you can drink till daybreak. We can’t go. Dexter has lost the car.
“Hell, I hate this,” he says, stalking around the streets of Grays Ferry. “I hate losing the goddam car. I hate losing the goddam car every time I come out of a club at 4 in the goddam morning.”
We wander the neat empty streets, and no matter how much Dexter complains in his quiet way, there is a peaceful feel to the walk. Like dogs must feel, when they run off with the leash still attached—they know sooner or later somebody will pick it back up, and they enjoy the lost feeling of freedom in the meantime.
“‘Hey, Pete,” the youngest bartender from the club calls to us as he locks the door. “Here’s your car right here. You’re just walking the wrong way.”
“Hey, thanks pardner, thanks,” says Pete, repeating it over and over with such heavy and sincere sincerity that the bartender finally gives him one of those bored, all-knowing South Philly looks and says, “Yo, drive the car.”
“They love me,” says Dexter. “You might remember to put in your article how I get along with the Common People.”
He turns to me and smiles a tickled mischievous little smile, and then turns away when I laugh. I remember where I’ve seen that smile before—it’s what makes his 15-month-old daughter Casey look just like him when she’s being bad.
4. Blanche and Casey and a dog who will not sneeze
“Sneeze!” says Dexter, and Henry the dog moans, a moan of inconsolable sorrow. “Wait now, you’ll see, this is his only trick, and it took me six years of my life to teach him. Sneeze, Henry! Achoo!” Dexter tries to encourage him by example. Henry moans and rolls over on the floor.
“Hell, I thought he’d forgotten that trick years ago. Sneeze Henry, sneeze! Achoo!”
Henry plays dead, and moans as if he’s mourning for his own death.
“Well, what’s six years of a man’s life? Henry forgot the damn trick, that’s all. Four or five hours a day, sitting in front of a dog, saying ‘Sneeze,’ and showing him how to do it. All gone now. What can you do, but start all over?” He turns to his daughter. “Sneeze, sneeze, Casey. Achoo!”
Casey smiles. She is one of those happy babies who seems to spend all her time smiling—or dumping credit cards out of her mother’s wallet or sharing a hot dog with Henry when she’s supposed to eat it up like a big girl. She has Dexter’s smile, and a round baby face, and already a lot of the quiet good looks of her mother. She is able to convince you, just by the way she runs around the central room of the house, that she’s at the beginning of a happy life.
My fondest friend, who moves in and out of my articles from time to time, says that certain kinds of men need women who are long-suffering—and short-tempered. Long-suffering, because that’s the way things are. Short-tempered because once in a while, the guy is supposed to have to stop and say, “You’re right! I know you’re right! I’m only killing myself. And I’ll never do it again.”
And then she has to make sure he doesn’t do it again—for at least a week. My fondest friend does it very well.
Diane Dexter gets into Pete’s columns often, where he calls her, as part of a joke that really has no explanation, Blanche. She doesn’t call him Stanley—so it’s not what you’re thinking. She is quiet, pretty, and kids him back—about one for three.
The house is a big A-frame that started out as a country vacation home, tucked into a corner of a big glassy South Jersey lake. “Big for Jersey,” says Dexter, “but you don’t get a real lake in the East.” Big trees hang over top, a long back lawn runs down to the water, interrupted here and there by little bits of garden, and leafy plants with a tomato or two on them.
“I really had to work,” says Pete. “Did everything myself.”
“Pete, I really can’t let you tell lies like that—now what did you do?” Diane asks.
“I built that hobbyhorse, didn’t I?” He points to a very Creative-Play-things-looking hobbyhorse that stands about twice as high as Casey does.
“Pete! You bought it in a kit.”
“Well, I didn’t cut down the tree,” says Pete. “I had to buy the lumber. But I built it. What else did I do?”
“You painted that wall, where you got the paint marks on the ceiling.”
“And I painted the other wall.”
“Where the masking tape is still up.”
“Only because it still needs another coat.”
“Six months, Pete.”
“I’m getting to it, I’m getting to it very soon.”
Blanche laughs, quietly, and looks away as she clears the plates. It’s always nice to see sex pass between husband and wife; the shier they are, the more they mean it.
5. The chicken. the hangover and the horse—how this all got started
“I just read this column,” somebody would stop you on the street, or walk over to you in a bar. “I just can’t see how they could print it in a daily paper—it’s the funniest thing I ever read. Now listen, this guy is going out to buy a parrot for his wife, Blanche, and he finds out that parrots cost $300. He only has $150, so he starts to drink. Finally, he decides he has to buy Blanche something so he goes down to the Italian Market and buys her a live chicken. For a pet. And he takes the chicken with him, and keeps drinking. The chicken looks paler and paler and he finally decides to make it look like a parrot. So he buys some red and blue and gold spray paint—red for the body, blue for the wings and gold for the feet. The chicken starts looking better and better to him and he takes it home, riding out the Admiral Wilson Boulevard. But this is the first time he’s ever been drunk in a car with a chicken that’s just been spray painted, and the thing starts flying all around and squawking, and suddenly it gets out the window. It’s ten miles before he can turn around—it’s always ten miles before you can turn around on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard—and when he finally does drive back he sees a whole bunch of people gathered around on the side of a road. The chicken is dead, and they’re all staring at it and shaking their heads. ‘Who would do such a thing—to a chicken?’ somebody says. And the last line of the column is ‘Since I was the only one standing around with red and blue stains on my fingers, I decided to get out of there pretty fast.’”
Or somebody would pull a carefully folded clipping out of a wallet and show it around—something like this quote, one of my favorites:
A quality about hangovers that rarely sees public discussion is that, roughly speaking, they triple your sexual appetite. Lying there with vision problems and unnatural stomach movements and smelling like the inside of an empty bottle of two-year-old bourbon, you suddenly realize there is something you want almost as much as a glass of ice water.
It is an intolerable and unfair handicap when the missus finally comes in to make you see how serious all this is, but it is also absolute proof that there is a God, although not necessarily an all-merciful God. On the other hand, you can’t really blame somebody who has to watch all creation if he sets it up to get a few laughs.
It took maybe six months for writers in this city to realize that we were getting something more than a few laughs—and for Pete Dexter to become the closest thing to a universally admired writer that Philadelphia’s ever had. How it all happened is of course a long story, a long Dexter story.
“I was pumping gas in Ron’s Belvedere station in West Palm Beach, Florida. Ron had 14 girl friends and they all came in the station at different times for free gas. He had them all on schedule and his wife at 12:30 sharp, so things never got fouled up and they never met each other. He was a cheap son of a bitch. He was so cheap that when he kept getting robbed he wouldn’t pay for a guard or even buy himself a sensible guard dog. He went across the street to the café and got this dog that the guy wanted to give away because it was biting all his customers. We locked him up inside the station when we left that night and then when we came back the next morning we realized we didn’t have any way to get him out. The dog is barking and slavering at us, going crazy inside there, shitting all over the place. We used to open the door real quick and throw him in some water so he wouldn’t die, and then lock the door back up before he bit your arm off. Took two, three weeks before we got him starved enough so we could go in and get him out. Then they called me to come up to the Daily News, and I did.”
“On Halloween 1976 I wrote my first column, and then another and another.”
How did the Daily News know to call you?
“Well, I’d worked at papers before. I graduated from the University of South Dakota, English and Math major, because they were the only two things I could do without studying. I only took one journalism course—in article writing—and got a D in it. I used to quit every spring and go off somewhere else—I spent a spring in Berkeley in a novel course. I got married to my first wife. I don’t think I should talk about her. She had big legs. Biggest legs you ever saw on a woman. I went to New Orleans for a while and worked in the post office. I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be a fireman. But I flunked the psychological test—the last thing you have to do before you get to be appointed fireman is have an interview with a psychiatrist and he gave me a Rorschach test, the one with the ink blots. I saw fires everywhere, in every kind of blot. I threw in a little sex now and then because I wanted him to think I was normal. And I told him how much I thought about fires and fighting fires. And I flunked the damn test. Which is lucky because I’d still probably be there. Went off to Florida, and sold cars—Jaguars and Cadillacs. Actually I never sold a car to anybody, I just stood there in the lot and looked at them. An old teacher of mine was on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts and he told me to apply, and I got a grant to spend a year writing. I was trying to be a poet then. So I went back up to South Dakota and lived in a little town. My dog Henry went with me, and Henry—I’ve had him a long time and did you know he will sneeze on command?—Henry got in with a gang of bad dogs and took up chicken-killing. You know they kill dogs for chicken-killing out in the country, and here Henry would run out of the house at night and come back in the morning carrying a chicken neck right in his mouth. I kept burying them in the snow, because the ground was too hard for any serious digging. Then spring started coming, and the money was running out, and I knew when the snow melted that Henry’s time would run out too, so we both just got out of there and went back to Florida. I walked into a newspaper office in West Palm Beach and they gave me a job, and I worked there until 1972, when the paper was bought up by a chain and the new owners wanted the editor to come out and endorse Nixon and he quit so I quit. Not because I cared about McGovern—I just liked the editor. Then I worked two months for the Daytona Beach Journal and the kid who ran that. I call him a kid but he was 50 and his daddy owned the paper and he’d never had to do anything he didn’t want to in his life. I quit, and he was involved, and I don’t think I want to go into the circumstances. Then I went to work for Ron’s Belvedere Gas Station, dodging the dog and the 14 girl friends for Ron. Then Dave Lawrence, who’d been down there, came up to here to be managing editor of the Daily News and he said there was a job in Philadelphia, and I applied.”
But you didn’t start out writing a column.
“I didn’t get along with Rolfe Neill, and he was the editor then. We really didn’t get along at all. Very personal. And I had to have operations on my hips. My hips had been dislocated a couple of times, playing football, and probably never did get set right, and I was in pain all the time. Finally, one day I was just walking down the street and for the first time in my life, blacked out, just fainted from pain. So I went to a doctor, and by luck I found the best doctors for that kind of thing in the country—in the world I guess. They had to take out my hips, and put in plastic ones. It was very painful, and I had to soak in the tub for a couple hours every day before I could walk at all, even after I got out of the hospital. And there was a psychological thing—before that, almost the most fun I’d had was playing football. Now, I’m not supposed to even try to run.
“When I went back to the paper, they started fucking with me. They’d have me come in at 8 o’clock in the morning, which meant I had to get up at 4 o’clock and sit in the tub. They had me calling up gas stations and asking what the price of regular was. They had me doing the house end—you know what that is? When some kid gets found dead in a refrigerator, you go interview the family to ask them how they feel and take a photographer along so he can take a picture of the mother looking at a picture of her kid.
“They were trying to get me to quit, I now believe—hell, they shoulda just asked me, I would’ve quit. But I kept doing it and then Gil Spencer came in to replace Neill.
“On Halloween 1976 I wrote my first column, and then another and another. I did one column, for example, about turning in a company car and it was one of those cold days when you’ve had a few drinks and you have to piss. So I park the car, and I take a piss against the tire. It’s only a tire. This guy comes running over saying, ‘Stop, you can’t do that.’ Saying ‘stop’ to a cold man taking a piss is like saying ‘roll back’ to the ocean, so I start arguing with him and turn around and it turns out I splash his shoes. Just a little bit, as I remember. So I wrote a column about that. There were memos flying around this building… The guy said how could he do his job because I had demoralized his whole department. I thought I hardly even damaged his shoes. Spencer calls me in and says, ‘Were you drunk? Wait a minute before you answer. You can’t report to a paper drunk or you get fired. So you weren’t drunk were you?’
“Not me, Gil, I said, and he got it smoothed over. I didn’t finally get my company car that all the columnists are supposed to get until this year, though.”
6. The end of Modernism
“Dexter is good. Dexter is good,” Maralyn Polak who writes the interview column for the Inquirer’s Sunday magazine, nods her positive nod. “You’re right. Dexter is the best. He’s the only male writer I know who can deal with emotion and not get maudlin. Like Breslin does. Or Hamill. Or really, listen, even Hemingway.”
We sit in the Pen and Pencil Club, around 2 a.m. on a weeknight. The Pen and Pencil calls itself the oldest journalist’s club in the country—used to be the oldest newspaperman’s club but they finally let in women five years ago. It still looks like the oldest unredecorated bar in the city—something you might have found in a rundown hotel in Atlantic City in 1957. The drinks are cheap, George and Leroy, the bartenders, are among the best in the city, and at 3 a.m. you can order as many drinks as you want—a policy that is bound to please, when the customers are writers. The Pen and Pencil is one of Dexter’s bars.
“If I don’t have the deadline right in front of me, I just can’t work. I’ll go to a movie, if I have to—till it gets late enough, and I get scared enough to have to work. My deadline is 5 a.m. I leave some days around 2 in the morning, some days around four minutes after 5 a.m.”
By now I’ve been haunting Dexter for a couple of weeks. I have his schedule down. He goes to the paper six days a week, around 3. Sometimes as early as 1 in the afternoon. He gets his mail, jokes with Chuck Stone or Larry McMullen, the columnists he shares an office with. It is an utterly hideous office, with a couple of new fancy desks (Formica tops grained like real wood), a lot of old gun-metal gray desks, a partition with a lot of old yellow papers behind it, and a Philadelphia Orchestra wall calendar that got stopped at October 1978. One wall is pegboard and bare except for a big brutal-looking poster with a picture of gossip columnist Larry Fields, and the slogan—NASTY MAN! BUT YOU’LL LOVE HIM. And one wall is covered all over with pictures of Miss Piggy and stills from movies like Brewster McCloud.
“That’s from Joe Baltake, our movie critic,” says Dexter sadly. “They just moved him up here, which is fine, except me and Stone and Larry just had this place looking right—like the visiting room in a small town jail. And now the effect is ruined.”
Dexter does not write except before a deadline.
“Sunday night, Tuesday night, Thursday night. I don’t start till about 7 or 8 o’clock. If I don’t have the deadline right in front of me, I just can’t work. I’ll go to a movie, if I have to—till it gets late enough, and I get scared enough to have to work. My deadline is 5 a.m. I leave some days around 2 in the morning, some days around four minutes after 5 a.m. I do around 900 words. Then I leave. Sometimes stop and have a drink with Jack McKinney or somebody. It’s easier waking Blanche up at 3:30 than it is at 2:30—she seems to get in a better mood,” he laughs a little. “I don’t have any emergency columns all written or anything—it would ruin the deadline for me. Tonight I might do a minister; he’s coming in to talk because he’s about to go to jail for fraud and wants me to call up Judge Lisa Richette for him. If the minister falls through, I got a message on my answering service about a moonshiner who thinks he only has to make a couple of changes in his formula and you could run your car on it. Ending the gas crisis, and making it more interesting to syphon off tanks. I’ve been trying to do a column about the Eagles training camp, because I like going out there and thinking that I don’t have to do that to myself anymore. But I need a couple more visits. Sometimes I just ride the car with a six-pack, stopping along the road to talk to people. You can get a column that way. Sometimes I just walk the streets. Sometimes you have to know what you’re looking for and wait till you get it. Sometimes you have to be able to be surprised. I really don’t think you’re going to get much out of watching me write a column, though. All I do is sit at the machine and type.”
Pete is being polite. He thinks it is extremely crazy for me to want to sit in the office for the eight hours he takes to write his column. But he lets me do it.
I read old columns to keep myself awake, trying hard not to giggle over them, when the convicted minister comes in—and reveals inside of five minutes that he is totally and completely loony. He brings his daughter and his girl friend, who drift away, over to Joe Baltake’s wall, identifying all the stars in all the photos, even Kim Novak. The minister seems to think that he was arrested unfairly and that bothers him. Judge Richette said he showed no remorse and that bothers him. It wasn’t $50,000 over a five-year period he stole, it was only $1,500 a year—maybe $2,000. Does Dexter think that the best thing he can do is go to the Russian Embassy and renounce his American citizenship for godless Communism, since they won’t let him practice religion in a profitable way here?
“I don’t see what you have to lose,” says Dexter; and the minister finally leaves. He is not material for a column. The moonshiner never calls, and never answers the phone when Dexter calls him.
It’s nearly 8:30 when Dexter finally says, “I have this thing about a restaurant,” and begins to write. He works on a VDT—A Video Display Terminal—something that looks like a television set with three typewriter keyboards attached. The words show up on the screen as you type, and you can change anything from a single letter to a whole line—adding letters, adding sentences, moving paragraphs. The machine even measures column inches for you, letting you know how much you’ve written as you go. And with a push of a button, it goes down to an editor’s machine. No fussing around with piles of paper, no throwing first drafts on the floor and losing half of them. VDTs are great machines, and they break down from time to time erasing the whole story—so they also provide a very healthy panic, whenever you need one, which is once a writing session.
There are different kinds of writers. Some wander the halls, drinking water and exercising their kidneys. Others just sit right at the machine and sigh. Dexter sits right at it. Four of five inches into the story, which is turning into a restaurant review, he stops and tries a couple phones and curses a little—everybody is testy on deadline—until he finally finds one that works.
“What I’m doing now is calling my mother. ‘Hello, Roz.’ I call her three or four times a week, about when the story gets started. ‘I got a guy here doing a story on me… Yeah….’ ”
A five minute conversation, mostly about Casey and Diane. Then back at the machine. The restaurant review changes to a review of a bar back in South Dakota, and then slowly changes back again, halfway, into a story about a woman at a restaurant who sat next to him and nearly choked to death. He helps unchoke her, and it is, as he says, “the only warm food I see all night.” He decides to award this restaurant not the ear and tails, as in bullfights. But only the tail. And calls down to the photo desk to tell them he wants a picture of a bull’s tail. By 10 p.m. he has 20 column inches, and he sighs, and sits there for four more hours, clicking away on the machine—which sounds like an organ with the power off.
Jack McKinney, who covers sports, Ireland, opera and life in general, stops by to tell him he’s going over to the Pen and Pencil. When will Dexter be finished?
“Never, looks like.”
Dexter calls down and asks what Larry McMullen’s column is about. McMullen’s column appears over Dexter’s on the page—but McMullen is taking the day off. “Shit,” he slams the phone. “Aw, shit! No McMullen to carry the page. You know there’s supposed to be this competition—friendly competition—between me and Larry. And there is. When people come to me in the morning and say, ‘Larry really did it today,’ I don’t feel exactly bad. But I like it better when they go to Larry and say, ‘Pete really did it.’ That’s in the morning. Around this time of night, around 11 o’clock with a column that’s not working….I always feel that I’ll be forgiven if he’s really good. I root for him. But tonight, no McMullen. This thing is going to have to work.”
He stares at the screen, and rolls the words of the column back and forward, making them shake and shudder as they move.
“Flat,” he says, and takes off his boots. “Okay, maybe, I’ll make the whole thing into a cheap joke.”
We’re at just that point in the story when the writer is convinced that all of it is awful—and has to be thrown away. And can’t be thrown away because there’s no time left and nothing else to fill the space.
He starts from the top again, rewriting again and again. Sentences move around, words change. Adjectives get erased, blipping noiselessly off the screen. If he were working on a typewriter, his pages would be full of cross-outs and write-overs. The VDT keeps everything looking beautifully clean. Final. Like an already printed story. Dexter seems to get a lot of satisfaction out of destroying it. The near death of the woman grows nearer, and more abstract, and funnier and funnier.
What is happening to Dexter right now is not exactly panic. And not exactly not. We’re at just that point in the story when the writer is convinced that all of it is awful—and has to be thrown away. And can’t be thrown away because there’s no time left and nothing else to fill the space. That’s why writers who love deadlines can’t write without them—it’s got to be two outs, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, three runs behind, three balls and two strikes.
There’s nothing like succeeding against long odds, and nothing better for lengthening the odds than a deadline. Dexter works. I walk in and out, picking up newspapers left by the cleaning ladies. Nobody else on the whole floor. I open a window to look out at the cars on the street below. It smells late.
“Is that tomorrow’s Inquirer?” he asks, suddenly jumping up from the machine. “Let me have it will you pardner? Dorothy Storck’s column is always in the Inquirer the same day I’m in the News….”
He reads carefully, a writer reading the competition.
“Good. Great. Terrific.” He nods, and hands the paper back. “I always read Dorothy Storck just about now—to convince me I won’t have the worst column in town tomorrow.”
He smiles with Casey’s mischievous smile, so I don’t think he entirely means it. But he is definitely happier when he walks back to the machine, and pushes a button on the keyboard.
The screen goes blank.
“It’s gone,” he moans. “I lost the whole column! Wait, wait, let me see if I can figure out what I did.” He very carefully picks among the buttons, asking the machine where his column is. Suddenly, the screen lights up again. And all the copy is back—unchanged. A necessary panic, and back to work.
It is 2 a.m. by the time Dexter runs down to the desk to see about the photo of the bull, and I get to read through the column. I am still laughing when he comes back.
“You know what? The desk editor is on vacation and this little replacement they got—as soon as I told him I wanted a photo of a bull’s ass, he calls up Spencer and tells on me, just like a kid telling on you in school. When I got there this guy’s got 50 photos from the picture file of bulls’ asses laying all over his desk, so I can pick out one I want. And he tells me, ‘Spencer says all right, but there better not be any balls or assholes showing.’ ‘Any assholes showing,’ I said. ‘If Spencer doesn’t want any assholes showing, he ought to be a little more careful about the hiring policy, especially for replacement editors on the city desk.’ ”
“This is a funny column,” I say.
“Yeah,” he smiles. “I did it finally. I knew six or seven inches in, it wasn’t going to be the writing or the thought for this one, just the humor, and I try to get those done a little sooner and get out of here. Took a little longer, tonight, maybe it was the minister.”
I don’t say anything because I have the feeling that maybe it was me—l don’t know if I’d let anybody look over my shoulder as I wrote.
“You know you have to watch out with the humor ones because it can’t just be a piece of fluff. I hate that. There has to be something there.”
It is an open secret that the Washington Post has tried to hire Dexter away from the News—and that he has so far refused because he wouldn’t have the same freedom and the same control over his writing.
“Were you thinking of a drink?” I ask.
7. Gil Spencer and the death of Modernism
“You have to know how we do things—out the ass. Now that’s a good quote, isn’t it? Try to clean me up as much as you can, will you, Jim?”
I’m talking to Gil Spencer on the phone and I ask him how come, since Dexter is such a good writer, he lets him write. How come he doesn’t try to make him into a sportswriter, or an interviewer, or something necessary to a paper. How come he doesn’t try to make him write a column every day, and a sidebar, and a backup piece. Because it seems to me that at any time in Dexter’s life he could have ruined it by making one step—and wound up a fireman in New Orleans, or a workhorse journalist.
“Dexter had a lot of trouble. Before I came. When I came here, he was an adequate reporter. Now he could have been a very good reporter, and that would have been fine with everybody, maybe even him. But that isn’t what he is. He’s a writer. We have columns here, and we had a column space open for people. Dexter lobbied to fill it—you should check with somebody about this if you really care about exact dates. Halloween 1976 was his first column, and we knew right away we had something.
“Dexter’s grown with that column, till he’s at the point now where his horizons seem to be unlimited. Did you read that column Hawk Shadows?
“You know in the column business there’s a sort of dichotomy between the top-of-your-head stuff and the go-out-and-get-the-story column. And there’s a tendency for people to say, if a guy writes about his life, that he didn’t have a column that day. But I’ve found that people respond more to the column about your life. You’re really hitting a chord with that stuff, because it’s about—everybody’s life. And the other columns have a way of looking old-fashioned. Not old journalism, just….”
“With Dexter, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. He has that shit-kicker stuff down pat. He writes humor. He could make a good living writing nothing but humor. And when he wants to, which is often, thank God, he shows you how to write.”
Just old art. Because the new column is a short story, possibly the only short story being written in America that’s being read outside the English departments of our universities. Modernism, that old religion of art, has taken the revolutionary story and turned it into an easy way to get promoted to associate professor. A little surrealism, a little violence, or what passes for violence in the academic world, and the tenure committee is sure to be impressed.
The tools of modernism—the flashback and the flashforward, stream of consciousness and sudden shifts of time and space, are so familiar that they’ve lost any real power to surprise or shock—like dirty words have lost their power.
So real literature, literature that pretends to be literature, winds up looking like the abstract paintings on the walls of the bank—harmless and decorative, made by people who do it for the reward.
And journalism—which has just as much access to all those tools—turns out to be able to use them unselfconsciously and for new ends. Which is why you see better abstract design in magazine illustration than in the little gallery that sells you beautiful frames.
I do not say this to Spencer, because it took too long to come to all of those conclusions, but Spencer says it to me, in another way: “We’ve got an awful lot of response about Dexter, in terms of other writers, and people in the business. Not so much out of town—the Daily News is kind of a well-kept secret; the people don’t realize we have that kind of quality. But the interesting thing about Dexter is that no matter how complicated the things are that he’s trying to do, they get a working-class response from our working-class readers. But an intellectual can read Dexter and love him, too. That’s a very powerful kind of writing.
“And with Dexter, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. He has that shit-kicker stuff down pat. He writes humor. He could make a good living writing nothing but humor. And when he wants to, which is often, thank God, he shows you how to write. Get Hawk Shadows. Oh Christ, it’s about a kitten Dexter had. It’s Steinbeck and Hemingway, and the people Dexter likes—Flannery O’Connor and Robert Frost—all rolled into one. Not a funny line in it, no humor. Just writing.”
8. More deaths?
“You know why I like Robert Frost?”
Dexter says he limps slightly, but he really doesn’t—it’s just that when he gets tired, or drinks, he seems to dance a little, on his plastic hips. We are walking over to the Pen and Pencil Club. The column is written, and it is only 2 a.m. After all.
“I never read a whole novel till I was 19. All through school, I just got the Cliff’s notes. My father was an English teacher—he died early this year—and I got a sister in Vassar, a brother out at the University of Chicago, and another brother so smart I don’t know what he does. They just pay him. Whoever they are. I was always the bad kid; everybody else was reading books and all I wanted to do was go out and shoot out all the windows in town, get laid and play football. I never read a novel. But I was about 15 when I started reading Robert Frost, and I liked him. And I like him now, and it’s for the same reasons. I may have changed and grown up a little—but the reasons were the right ones from the beginning. That’s what’s so good about Frost.”
I want to do one more bar scene—though I keep getting the feeling that I’m trying to write a Dexter column, and failing. But Dexter—Gil Spencer says Dexter is a combination of Hunter Thompson and Will Rogers—is able to arrange things so that being with him is watching a Dexter column happen. I don’t mean he makes people perform. I mean that he does have that Will Rogers kind of humanity, so that people respond to him quickly. Everybody relaxes.
Dexter relaxes. A three-time-a-week columnist spends 25 or 30 hours just sitting in front of the typewriter. Another 10 or 20 on the phone or listening to guys like the minister who is a Jesus-thief. Another 10 or 20 looking for stories, patiently watching and waiting. The bar and the car—though I’ve cut out all the car stories—are perfect American places for Dexter. They’re places where people feel they are ordinarily protected, behind a wall of glass or loud music or plain stupor, and so getting past the wall is… art.
Jack McKinney is at the bar.
“Pete,” he says, gravel voiced, stirring a drink. “You remember that kid, the young kid who moved up to New Hope? Living with some girl? He’s dead. He was riding in the car arguing with her and he says, ‘I’m getting out.’ She’s driving and says, ‘Oh no you’re not,’ and speeds up. He says, ‘Fuck you’ and goes out the door. Hits his head on the ground, in a coma—the family just said turn off the support system and he’ll be breathing another day at the most.”
“Jesus,” says Dexter.
“Like your friend—whole back of his head smashed in,” says McKinney. “For nothing. You know, I don’t know how many people say to me, I’d like to go over to Ireland and fight, Jack. Like they think I’m the fucking recruiting sergeant. That kid said the same thing. And maybe he meant it. Maybe he should’ve gone. At least he’d’ve died for something. When I think of what I did at his age—and survived, for no reason. You know, one time I’m driving the car arguing with this woman, and I tear the steering wheel right off this old Studebaker I had. Yeah. I have the wheel in my hands, driving, and yelling ‘Quit breaking my balls! Quit breaking my balls!’ I’m shaking the steering wheel, and I break it off right at the hub. So drunk, that when it comes off in my hands, with the momentum, I just throw it over my head into the back seat. There I am, 60 miles an hour, nothing to steer with….”
We are all laughing.
“I grab the nut, you know the little square nut that holds on the underside of the wheel, I grab it with both hands. I’m trying to pump the brakes a little to slow down, the car is going all the hell over the road… I didn’t die. For no reason. And think of that poor kid jumping out of his car. Couldn’t have been more than 25.”
We are all not laughing. McKinney liked that kid.
I’ll do one more death, a story from another guy at the bar; I am not going to mention his name because I think I got the story wrong and I know I got the dead guy’s name wrong—though I think the dead guy would only laugh at that.
“This is a bar down in the Devil’s Pocket, and years ago—l’m going back now—they used to have a trolley car line outside. Loopy Noonan walks out one day and holds up his hand. ‘The Strike is On,’ he says, very serious. ‘Mike Quill says nothing rolls.’ Loopy Noonan sends all the trolley cars on the street back to the barn. And the next street and the next street, all across South Philly, making his own strike as he went. ‘Up with the working man,’ he says, and turns them around. You know how Loopy died?” The guy puts his arms on the bar, and his head in his arms, in the classic pose of the drinker when time has finally decided he’s had enough. “Just like this, at that same bar. This is going back a long way.”
We drink to going back a long way, to Loopy Noonan, to the kid jumping out of the car, the kid beaten senseless in the streets. And I have one last 3 a.m. epiphany. Carlos Castaneda, or the mother of six, or her Catholic training or all of them together—are right. When Loopy Noonan put his head on the bar, where blind luck and blind chance meet blind faith, blind drunk, he saw death clearly, not as an idea but a thing, a hawk shadow in a beautiful sentence. So he could meet death like an angel, joking, with a smile of a 15-month-old-baby girl.
The workers, and the jokers, manage to do that with their lives. The rest of us need to do it with ideas—that’s why we need writers like Pete Dexter, and art.
[Illustration by Sam Woolley/GMG]